But at some point, senior figures in Downing Street saw an opportunity: to tie together a bigger argument about Britain’s hopes for Brexit that would also respond to critics complaining of a lack of clarity.
And so the “road to Brexit” series of speeches was born, starting with the foreign secretary on a “United Kingdom” – a Valentine’s day plea for remainers and leavers to come together under one flag.
His argument, which he believes sets out the liberal argument for leaving the EU, will be followed by a Theresa May speech on security cooperation this weekend, and then three set-piece events in quick succession from key Brexit ministers.
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, will insist that the UK’s break from the European bloc will not herald an era of deregulation, but be an opportunity to drive high standards; Liam Fox, the trade secretary, will talk about trading opportunities with the rest of the world; and David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister, will cover the thorny questions relating to devolution.
After that – to wrap it together – a substantial intervention from the prime minister that will follow her Lancaster House and Florence speeches, and place on the table the UK’s vision of a post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU.
Brexit, a Downing Street source made clear, was a “defining moment in the history of our nation” and these set-piece speeches aim to give gravitas to the government’s position.
But first May has to reach that position, by forging agreement among her 10-strong subcommittee on exiting the EU strategy (sometimes dubbed the Brexit “war cabinet”) at Chequers.
Many have reported that the chancellor (these days a pantomime villain in the eyes of Brexiters) has been snubbed, but I suspect that is a little unfair.
The chancellor is heading to a number of the arguably more-friendly European capitals (Stockholm, Oslo, Lisbon, Madrid – and also The Hague) to discuss financial services and won’t be holding back when it comes to the ministerial away day.
Despite the sense of a cabinet at war, May is unlikely to struggle in uniting her team around what she believes should be Britain’s opening gambit for a future deal.
In fact, there is broad agreement over May’s push for an ambitious, bespoke trade deal like no other in the world, which will take a Canadian-style free trade agreement and add services critical for the UK economy.
And there isn’t too much controversy over her so-called “three buckets” approach either, as set out in her Florence speech. There, May argued that there were areas of policy and regulation where the UK would want to immediately diverge from the EU, others where we would set the same goals but achieve them through different means, and a third area of continued alignment “because it makes sense for our economies”.
The cabinet is also largely agreed that taking control of Britain’s borders by limiting free movement was a central demand of voters in the June 2016 referendum.
Which should mean that this section of the road to Brexit should run relatively smoothly, despite the background noise of ardent Brexiters and remainers on the backbenches who will be continuing to fight their battles over parliamentary legislation.
But further along the journey, May must know that the surface could become significantly more bumpy.
Because while Johnson and Hammond, plus Gove and Rudd, can probably agree on what Britain should ask for, they will be less aligned if the EU rejects any of those demands.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has claimed – in what, admittedly, is his opening gambit – that the UK cannot have the level of access it hopes for from outside the single market and customs union. And senior EU officials have rejected the idea of the “three buckets” principle, arguing that it amounts to “cherry-picking” from the single market.
If they maintain that negotiating position, then the British government will be faced with difficult trade-offs.
Because that will mean that while a bespoke deal is still possible, it will be one that must fall within the parameters for international trade that already exist – with a choice between excellent market access and the obligations that demands, or a lower-price and looser trading arrangement that will inevitably carry a larger economic cost.
At that point, the differences between May’s key cabinet figures will become more stark, and we might even discover what the prime minister really thinks.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010
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